by Tom Utescher
In the Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference standings it may show up as just another regular-season game, but there’s something special about a contest in which the student surpasses the master for the very first time.
Prior to becoming the inaugural men’s basketball coach at Chestnut Hill College in the 2004-2005 season, Griffins mentor Jesse Balcer was both a player and an assistant coach under Philadelphia University legend Herb Magee. More recently, Magee’s Rams mastered Chestnut Hill in each of the first 10 meetings between the teams, but Balcer finally broke through in last Wednesday’s road game, as his Griffins toppled their nemesis, 74-61.
Balcer’s ballclub improved to 2-4 in the CACC and 5-9 overall, while the Rams (who won a December square-off at Chestnut Hill back in December) drifted to 4-2, 9-6.
Each squad got a strong effort from its marquee junior forward; Dan Comas led the winners with 18 points and eight rebounds, and Corey Francisco paced the Rams with 19 points and eight boards.
The game-changer was CHC sophomore guard Jakeem Bogans, who rang up eight of his 16 total points during the final five minutes, keeping the Rams at bay. The speedy 5’8” Bogans, a Cardinal Dougherty grad, hurt the hosts on the inside, the outside, and from the foul line, as well as on defense.
“He does that to our own team in practice,” Balcer confessed. “He kills us. It’s great to see the way he’s stepped it up this year.”
Naturally, everyone wanted to know what Coach Magee said to Balcer in the handshake line immediately after the game.
“He said ‘Good job, Jesse’ – the same thing he said the 10 times he beat me,” Balcer related. “He’s a man of few words in that way, but he’s gracious in victory and in defeat.”
Balcer revealed that the next day he received a congratulatory phone call from Dave Pauley, the veteran coach at another CACC school, the University of the Sciences.
“He said to make sure I enjoyed it, because it may not happen again for a long time,” the CHC skipper said. “It was a special game, but you have to sort of file it away for later because there are other things we need to focus on right now. In terms of our season it was just one win.”
A multi-sport athlete at Abington Friends School (Class of 1992), Balcer was recruited by Philly U. as a baseball shortstop. He tried out for the hoops squad, as well, eventually becoming the first walk-on player to serve as captain on a Herb Magee team. He worked as an assistant coach at his college alma mater from 2000 to 2003.
On Balcer’s latest trip back to Henry Avenue and School House Lane, his Griffins didn’t open up a double-digit lead until the final phase of the contest, but they were aggressive from the outset and had the Rams playing catch-up much of the evening. Philly U. briefly enjoyed a 19-17 edge 11 minutes into the action, but following a time-out the Griffins came back to attain a 33-29 halftime lead. CHC’s Comas and Philly U’s Francisco each had 10 points in the book to lead their respective squads.
When the second half began, the Rams found themselves unable to make any inroads against the leaders over the first eight minutes or so. They slowed down Comas a little bit on the inside, but a score off a steal by Bogans, a three-pointer by junior Uros Kovacevic (five points, three assists), and a putback by sophomore forward Khadim Ndiaye (eight points, four rebounds) contributed to a 47-39 CHC lead while Philly U’s seven-foot center, Temi Adebayo, contemplated his fourth personal foul of the night.
Seven points by Rams sophomore guard Jimmy Connolly (relatively quiet up to that point) figured into a rally that brought the hosts back to tie the game, 56-all, with five minutes to go. Comas scored from the paint and canned two of three free throws to put the Griffins back in front for good. Four points from sophomore Mark DiRugeris (12 points), two from senior Brandon Williams (seven points, three assists), and eight by Bogans completed an 18-5 finish for Chestnut Hill. Most of CHC’s scoring in the stretch came on 11-for-13 free-throw shooting, as the visitors kept a handle on the ball and forced Philly U. to foul. The Griffins committed just seven turnovers the entire evening.
Connolly ended up with 13 points and eight rebounds for the Rams, who also received 10 points apiece from J.J. Gundry (eight rebounds, three assists) and Nick Christian (six rebounds.)
“I preach defense to the guys all the time, because that’s how we’re going to win games,” said Chestnut Hill’s Balcer. “They get tired of hearing me say it, but if we can hold the other team to around 60 or 65 points, we have a good shot. In games like tonight, they proved that to themselves.”